Twelve Steps to American Reparations

Twelve Steps to American Reparations

  1. We admit that we have not been telling the whole truth of our past—that our nation has become splintered and unmanageable.
  2. We come to believe that a system greater than ourselves must be reckoned with.
  3. We make a decision to turn our nation around, to be regenerated through this process, to gain the ability to care for the change.
  4. We make a searching, honest, and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. We admit to the universe, to ourselves, to our neighbors, to African Americans, the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. We admit that we are ready for the modern-day disparities resulting from the legacies of enslavement to be removed.
  7. We admit that this cannot be fully fixed with monetary compensation and attempt to re-orientate ourselves outside the lie of history we have been fed.
  8. Make a list of all the persons we have wronged through the legacy of slavery—large to small—and become willing to make amends to them.
  9. We make direct amends to these people wherever possible.
  10. We continue to monitor ourselves, take personal inventory, and when we relapse we promptly admit it.
  11. We commit to educating ourselves to a truer version of American history, as we understand that our refusal is the root of much of our problems
  12. We continue to help others, carry this new development of American heritage, identity, and standing in the world.

Twelve Steps to American Reparations addresses the fundamental injustices that have afflicted people of African descent in America since the arrival of European pioneers in the New World. The following reparation project is a guide to discuss America’s history of slavery, injustice, and continued oppression of African Americans. My guide for formulating the twelve steps, posing questions and collecting artwork (on view in the digital gallery) was in response to the urgent need for the United States to reckon with its past actions whose legacy has reverberated into our present social, economic, and political landscape. Twelve Steps to American Reparations aims to generate change through discussion. However, bigger, radical change requires citizens to demand that the local and federal government take political and legal action in tandem with their grassroots efforts. Working to support the discussion that the steps and questions of Twelve Steps to American Reparations, the curated artworks in the digital gallery that accompanies this text are designed to complement the viewer’s reflection. The imagined full expression of this project would take place in a public space to fully immerse the viewer in both the text and artwork. It is imagined to be traveling and is made to be open to people of all ages, gender, economic status, and race. Not only does the online platform work to support the viewer to continue the discussion after their visit to the exhibit, it also is a guidebook for people who cannot get to the exhibit in person.

The primary objective of Twelve Steps to American Reparations is to educate people about the atrocities of enslavement and the echoes of slavery in the present, both of which have been supported by institutions and social systems that benefit from the injustices done on the enslaved. The full acceptance of America’s history and the continued consequences is paramount to create change in American culture and politics. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in “The Case for Reparations,” “Reparations beckons us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.”1 While this project does not demand any monetary or legal reparations to African Americans today, it seeks to start a wider, psychological shift in the minds of Americans. Through the guiding questions and art, Twelve Steps to American Reparations aims to help Americans, particularly those who are not descendants of enslaved people, learn from our past sins. Once this is achieved, America can give a new life of possibility to the values laid out in our founding documents in the future. The steps are meant to move the participant through the circle of the fields of reparation politics, a concept formulated by historian and sociologist John Torpey. This circle consists of the stages: commutative history, apology, compensation, and transitional justice.2 By honestly navigating the questions, individually or with a group, one should be able to overcome the mental block of denial and see where they participate in the continued oppression of Black Americans. The artwork for each section supplements the steps to widen the discussion. The exhibit currently has ten pieces of art (these can be expanded as the project matures) which portray themes of community, progress, and justice.

The approach to reparation presented in Twelve Steps to American Reparations draws on the idea that there must be a shift in the historical narrative of America expose the root of ongoing Black oppression. The current narrative of America relieves any White guilt, denies the deep racial injustices, and mutes the Black experience. It refuses to present the ugly truth of the American paradox; it’s a nation that is built on the principles of liberty while at its conception excluded its population with full rights to its promises as property-holding, tax-paying, literate, White adult men. Since, this right-holding population has grown and changed in its membership, however, American ‘liberty’ remains exclusionary. This project works against the nation’s insistence to turn away from “not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future” written in its history.3 While alternative narratives that offer other truths are not hard to come by, the mainstream narrative of history has left the Black experience out. Instead, a White-dominated narrative remains at the cost of Black life in the name of America’s identity and heritage.

Over the past several years, the idea of reparations has resurged in politics and mass media, but this topic has been discussed in smaller spaces for some time. The twelve-step project was inspired by the writings of James Baldwin in “The White Man’s Guilt,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article “The Case for Reparations,” John Torpey’s Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics, and the recent legal attempt of Rep. John Conyer Jr. with Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act (H.R. 40). H.R. 40 was presented and designed to create a federal commission to start research on how to recompense the trauma of slavery and its afterlife. Twelve Steps to American Reparations was inspired by the twelve step framework of Alcoholics Anonymous as a way to start a communal conversation about reparations and to reject the line of color that divides America’s history. As Coates writes,

We must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. The recovering alcoholic may well have to live with his illness for the rest of his life. But at least he is not living a drunken lie. Reparations beckon us to reject the intoxication of hubris and see America as it is—the work of fallible humans.4

Thus, to break away from denial of failure there are stages of acceptance, self-reflection, action, and long term changes.

As presented in H.R. 40, any reparations should address the cruel injustices that Africans have face by the institution of slavery. From the establishment of the colonies, African Americans have been enslaved and denied full human rights by the nation’s institutions. By acknowledging the “racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans,” reparations must address America’s past by hearing a diverse range of voices because it is paramount that the black experience in America is not eclipsed and silenced by dominating white American history.5 The mainstream narrative is threatened by the Black experience, which complicates and proves what is inconsistent with the values of the nation. Coates writes:

We invoke the words of Jefferson and Lincoln because they say something about our legacy and our traditions. We do this because we recognize our links to the past—at least when they flatter us. But black history does not flatter American democracy; it chastens it . . . white supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.6

To acknowledge the full force of White supremacy in America’s fabric is the root of undoing the nation’s paradox. What has America clinging to this old narrative, to the question of reparations’ feasibility, and the continued denial of Black people’s full participation as citizens, is the maintenance of White amnesia––an invitation to not see what is obviously there. Whiteness to not see what is obviously seen. This project is a way to ease this fear of giving up the status quo and try to seek long term repair of the nation’s sins.

The open questions and artwork work to overcome the restrictions that many reparation projects face; together they aim to prompt a discussion where people can think and question their preconceived ideas. While many multimedia forms like the 1936 film Fury, as recognized by Amy Louise Wood, have attempted to start a discussion about reparations, however many limit the invitation to the viewer to directly converse with the ideas they raise. This film proved to be limiting in its rendering of lynch mobs. While the film represented the mob violence and injustice that Black people faced, in the South particularly, “the filmmakers showed themselves to be more interested in a story of thwarted justice and the ruthless psychology of mobs than in a story of racial antagonism. . . . By displacing race from the main plot, they, like so many lynching opponents at the time, attacked lynching as an American, rather than a white man’s or southern travesty.” 7 Thus, Wood’s analysis implies that Fury’s filmmakers did not fully understand the racial meaning of lynching. Furthermore, the social landscape at the time of Fury is reflected in the film. Created during a time of racial segregation, the film reiterates the reality of the time, normalizing it, even though a modern viewer is likely to identify the caricaturization of black characters and their segregation from white characters. 8 Finally, the effectiveness and relevance of depicting racial violence on Black bodies in visual media as a means to uncover America’s sins has been a point of debate. It is argued that lynching images are powerful because Whether it can be useful to show lynching is often a point of debate because “for many, it persisted, and still persists, as the most vivid and forceful symbol of racial terror and injustice . . . [however] To this day, the specter of lynching can be wielded with terrifying force as a rhetorical weapon or a form of racist intimidation.” 9 Thus, by not leading the discussion on reparations with imagine, there is less space to go awry to lead to greater thought and learning for the whole community.

Discussion pushes citizens to think, learn, and hear each other, which what Twelve Steps to American Reparations  encourages its viewers do. The exhibit provides a framework for the   conversation Coates’s essay proposes as a starting point: “to create a hearing of America’s past towards African Americans, to wrestle with the past, so we may find that the country can never fully repay African Americans.”10 The twelve steps of the exhibit are designed to guide the process of self-evaluation and turn a critical eye toward America’s history despite the threat to American identity. As John Torpey writes, “In the end, what matters is the horizon in which the past is viewed. . . . The question is one of balance, and of how to draw inspiration from the past in the face of the sobering recovery of its uglier, previously subterranean, features.”11  To achieve this balance, Twelve Steps to American Reparations uses the works of art to achieve a hopeful vision of the future, to work in tandem with the steps of self-action.

This project has three foreseen shortcomings. First, the reliance on voluntary participation requires that there be a preexisting desire for change. This should be addressed in a similar format of the marketing plan for a mass-produced new product. The first people who participate will be a small percentage; the first respondents are people who already have a belief and a desire for change. These first respondents, according to communications expert Evertt Rogers, need to grow to about 14 percent of the population. 12 After crossing this threshold, it is likely that a wider majority of citizens will become more interested in Twelve Steps to American Reparations. Second, there is little mention of people in the American population outside the White–Black binary. While this narrative has dominated the landscape of debates in the United States, it is important to remain cognizant that there are other oppressed peoples such as Native Americans as well as colored immigrants and their descendants. To address the specific historical injustices that impact those communities, later extensions of the exhibit should be committed to hearing their stories. Thirdly, the lack of direct, visible change can possibly create a feeling of stagnation and the loss of momentum. While quantifiable actions are likely to be an outcome of the twelve steps, the discussion-based quality does not offer any concrete evidence of the reparations built into the twelve steps.

In light of these shortcomings, Twelve Steps to American Reparations has the potential to produce action that ranges from small change in local communities to federal legal changes. Each step will present its own challenges. It is important to note that one form of reparations that has been a constant point of debate is monetary reparations. While receiving money is desirable in the short term, and is included in Torpey’s circle of reparations, it fails to address more fundamental long-term issues. On the side of caution, Coates points out that “no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed” but what is important is “that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced.”13 Twelve Steps to American Reparations works on an individual and communal level, and if it becomes apparent that money can be used to repair wrongs, then it should be. This keeps the method of reparations tailored to smaller cases in comparison to state or nationwide monetary reparation, which can easily depart from the actual harm that the history of slavery has done to certain people.

In conclusion, the need for change and the reckoning of America’s past is our responsibility as a society that has found itself living in an increasingly diverse and interconnected world; as a government whose duty is to uphold and reconnect to America’s fundamental values; and as citizens who must create a better world because the symptoms of current, corrosive historical narrative has come to affect us all. We must acknowledge that “the idea of reparations is frightening not simply because we might lack the ability to pay. The idea of reparations threatens something much deeper—America’s heritage, history, and standing in the world.” 14 However, we must commit to long-term change and refuse to put more band-aids on America’s cancer. Through Twelve Steps to American Reparations, the nation can start to honestly accepts its present and past failures, we can start to create a better America. As Coates envisioned: “the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.” 15

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014,
  2. John Torpey, Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 50.
  3. Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”
  4. Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”
  5. U.S. Congress, House, Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, 115th Cong., 1st sess, H.R. 40, 2017.
  6. Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”
  7. Amy Louise Wood, Lynching Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 231.
  8. Wood, Lynching Spectacle, 239.
  9. Wood, Lynching Spectacle, 269.
  10. Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”
  11. Torpey,  Making Whole What Has Been Smashed, 76.
  12. Everett M. Rodgers, Diffusion of Innovation, 5th Edition (New York: Free Press, 2003).
  13. Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”
  14. Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”
  15. Coates, “The Case for Reparations.”
Back to Top